Have you ever wondered what this world would be like if there were no ways to write things down? No books. No kindle readers. No way to preserve the vast literature, history, culture and languages of this world. Nothing with anything written on them! You communicate only verbally, memorize every necessary information because you don’t know how to write, in fact, you have never heard of it.
No reading or writing — no concept of a place called school. No money around because how do you represent numbers? No signboards anywhere. It won’t be chaos, because we would have still survived in a world like that, like our ancient people did. But imagine the inconvenience the sheer lack of writing can bring upon us. Thanks to our predecessors, for giving us one of the greatest inventions in this world that we often tend to overlook in our day-to-day life simply because it has become too common for us to notice — the art of writing.
It didn’t happen all of a sudden though, not something the ancient people stumbled upon one day and decided to embrace. It was a rather gradual process that took time, a lot of brainstorming and dedication.
This world we know of today has come a long way in its 1,50,000 years of human evolution. New lands have formed, ancient kingdoms have disappeared, deserts have replaced oceans and oceans have taken over lands in these hundreds and thousands of years, all the while watching our kind survive the harshest of conditions and evolving against all odds. We learnt to farm, grew crops, domesticated animals, formed clans, made cities out of villages and went to war for our people. We invented the wheel, realized the value of keeping notes by using symbols and drawings until we decided we needed something more simple, something easier to jolt down in less time. That’s how we got to the art of writing.
The numbers that we know of today originated in India. The western world often confuses numbers for being of Arabic origin, but it’s a fact that they came across the number system through the Arabian people who used to be the connecting line between Asia and Europe. As for writing down our spoken language — now that’s a different story altogether.
The earliest form of accepted written language are the cave paintings (around 35,000 BCE). Although the cavemen didn’t have alphabets like we do today, they had specific symbols for each animal/ thing they wanted to present, and they managed to tell stories through their art. All their symbols, placed strategically, tells a story or conveys a message (how they hunted, tales of bravery etc.) that can be well understood. Written language evolved in Mesopotamia (modern-day Iraq) somewhere around 3500 – 3000 BCE, when the people of that great land started to mold tablets out of clay and engraved their messages on the wet tablets with a sharp object. Once engraved, these tablets were dried on fire and kept aside safely. This process was the stepping stone for mankind in the history of writing. Undoubtedly, Mesopotamia is called the cradle of civilization!
You see, in those days, trade between the many lands was very different from what it is today. People didn’t pay for money in exchange of the things they “bought”. Rather, they exchanged other things that seemed good enough for something they wanted to buy. For example, if one wanted to buy a bag of flour, they would exchange a large can of milk and some meat. The concept of rupee came after a very long time, when people had learnt to count and keep track of their accounts. Merchants who travelled far and wide took with them a clay slate or two issued by a governing body that enabled them to carry out their trades unhindered. But clay slates were a problem. They could break easily, get deformed, and were heavy to carry around when in bulk. This posed a problem for the ever traveling people.
Now, while the people of Mesopotamia were mastering the art of engraving history on their clay slates, a writing system was evolving in Egypt as well. They started with engraving their messages on stones and clay just like people in the Mesopotamian civilization did. They didn’t use complete drawings like the cavemen did to convey their messages, rather, they developed a somewhat simplified system to represent things with symbols, known as hieroglyphs. The system may seem complex at first but it is believed to be a straightforward system among the ancient writing systems that have evolved anywhere in the world. What you see today in the tombs and temples of Egypt are brilliant examples of hieroglyphs, the word hieros means sacred and glypho refers to engrave. But the art of engraving was limited to craftsmen, painters and sculptors, since this took a considerable time, effort and perfecting the symbols. A common man couldn’t write this system without making mistakes, or without damaging the platform on which he would write on. This is when it became essential to find something easier to write on.
The Egyptian civilization rose on the banks of Nile, and there grew a kind of plant called papyrus whose stem could be beaten into thin strips to write things on. Soon, the people of the land discovered it and started making thin papyrus slates. These could be rolled, folded and were easier to carry because they were considerably lighter than their clay counterparts. One could easily scribe on these with a sharp reed. The ease of writing now led to the use of a simpler form of the script, instead of scribing every symbol fully. However, this didn’t allow the original scribes to be forgotten. They continued to remain in use for official notices and letters, scribes on temples and tombs, although simpler scribes began to be in use for private messages and literature.
Fast-forward 500 years, in 2500 BCE, the people of the Indus valley civilization began to use soapstones and steatite for engraving seals. It is believed that these were used to pay for commodities from the merchants and traders that came into the land. Most of the Indus script has been found on seals only, which makes one wonder of this was specifically used for buying and selling purposes, and keeping accounts. The Indus script mostly consists of signs, the lack of text or inscriptions that were long enough to convey a longer message strengthens the concept furthermore. It is understood that the signs probably stood for the amount of the commodities and their ownership.
Another civilization that developed one of the ancient writing systems of the world was China, around 1600 BCE. In fact, the Chinese developed the paper that we use today. Although Chinese writings make them rather difficult to print or typewriting, they survived against all odds and gave rise to the Japanese script, which, if not a direct descendent or Chinese script, bears a very close resemblance to it.
Thereafter, many scripts developed in different parts of the world in close succession to each other, the Arabic script (5th century BCE) which gave rise to modern-day Arabic language, the American script (Mayan script) which gave us vast knowledge of astronomy and the Mayan calendar and numerous others.
In fact, the use of black ink has evolved merely 700 years before. Black-inked letters were used for German textbooks, the script a little angular. This script remained in use until the early 20th century, when the Humanists of Italy, who were associated with the Renaissance, condemned it to be barbaric and dark about the middle ages. They called this script as Gothic. But the use of black ink remained, for it allowed the text to be more prominent that just engraving or inscriptions in any other color.
This was just a glimpse into the world of writing systems and how writing platforms evolved. What we have today is the result of years of evolution, in fact, the English language that we speak and write is changing constantly, someday, we might be writing in SMS format everywhere, and it would be no surprise to the generations to come, for they will probably embrace it without finding it weird.